My travels in Cuba (3/3): Varadero & back to Havana

By Daniel Margrain

Varadero Banner.jpg

In the final part of my ‘traveling experience in Cuba’ trilogy of articles, I will focus on the tourist holiday coastal resort of Varadero. I arrived in the town from Cienfuegos, the contrasts of which couldn’t be more striking. Just like Ancona near Trinidad, the raw and ragged coastal setting is picture-postcard beautiful. I arrived as the sun descended on the horizon, its orb the brightest of tangerine orange. As this gigantic ball of light melted into the Atlantic, a handful of tourists began frantically photographing the afterglow – a kaleidoscope of subtle hues that sank into the sillouette of nearby palms and wooden canopies of the restaurants that adorned the bay.

The pork steak and rice washed down with a bottle of Buckaneroo beer that I consumed at a beach-side restaurant that evening made a pleasant change from the rather predictable food of the Casa’s. Saturday night in Varadero was more subdued than I anticipated. The vast swathes of British package tourists that I thought would be filling the hotels and bars never materialized, having been usurped by their mainly French, Italian and Canadian counterparts.

Varadero, much like other places in Cuba where tourists spend much of their time and money in each others company, is a foreign tourist enclave where small businesses proliferate and operate semi-autonomously from the centralized arm of the Cuban state. This small coastal town is littered with restaurants, bars and numerous plush but sanitized all-inclusive hotels.

As of 2009, Varadero is the only place in the country where it’s illegal for Cuban’s to let out the rooms of their Casa’s, which was presumably intended as a means to avoid the eventuality of undercutting the income of the hotel chains. That’s not to say that these illegal private rooms for rent in shared houses don’t exist. They proliferate in the small back streets. I stayed in one.

In Varadero, hard currency in the form of the Cuban convertible, has replaced the Peso as the international monetary language. It is the place that many Cuban’s come to boost their state salaries. The domination of hard currency in the town has resulted in a distorted local economy altering the dynamic of the community, not necessarily in a good way. Varadero is actually a rather sad and uninspiring place – a kind of miniature version of how I imagine Miami to be without the gregarious trappings that one associates with the latter, but nevertheless is as equally as unsuited to the environment from which it has emerged.

Mass tourism and the tourist ghetto that has accompanied it, has created socioeconomic polarizing fractures within the community. Visible, and at times ostentatious displays of material wealth exist here alongside abject material deprivation – a situation that will almost certainly worsen as the relative trickle of tourists here inevitably turn into a flood in the years to come. The apparent irreconcilable forces that are pulling Varadero apart acts as a warning sign to the rest of the country in a future post-Fidel world.

Wherever large swaths of tourists converge who bring with them hard currency in a two-tier economy in which a dual currency operates, all notions of authenticity correspondingly disappear because without access to the Convertible Cubans are effectively excluded from the social circles, restaurants and bars that tourists engage in. Let me put this into some kind of context. A beer in a hard currency-only bar costs the equivalent of one-twentieth of the monthly salary of a skilled Cuban worker.

If you have access to the Peso (which tourists are able to acquire at any Cuban bank in exchange for the Cuban Convertible or other forms of hard currency like the Euro), a basic meal on the streets of Havana costs the equivalent of 25p. This kind of two-tier economy is not consistent with socialism but rather a highly political bureaucratic state. The revolution that overthrew U.S puppet, Fulgencio Batista in 1959, was in reality an anti-colonial rather than a socialist revolution in which Cuba’s workers were largely onlookers, however sympathetic.

State corruption is the inevitable consequence that flows from this set of relationships. Ordinary Cubans who are not connected to either the high echelons of the bureaucratic state or the tourist sector, today speak endlessly and angrily about the visible and growing gulf – economic, social and political – between this privileged layer and the majority, whose daily life is a struggle. Tourism exacerbates these divisions which explains why politically, socially and economically Cuba is being pulled in different directions.

For many visitors to Cuba, the ‘authentic’ Cuban experience normally means any combination of the following: reading Hemingway, salsa music, Che iconography, the Buena Vista Social Club, 1950s Cadillacs and bustling smoke-filled bars full of folks drinking Mohito’s and smoking Monte Cristo cigars. But for others – myself included – these aspects of Cuban life represent the fetishization of Cuba – a partial and largely superficial depiction perpetuated by of a divisive tourist sector that feeds off these characteristics of Cuban culture.

What capitalist relations does, is it distorts and exploits these aspects of culture for the benefit of the market as if the whole of Cuban society can be reduced to something akin to a composite painting. In this sense, potentially the most marketable aspects of culture are identified, repackaged and then sold for public consumption as the precursor for the expansion of the capital accumulation process.

The sad and ironic truth is that without the hard currency of the tourists, there would be little ‘authentic’ Cuba for whom those who deal in the hard Cuban Convertible currency, believe we, as visitors, want to experience. I’m specifically thinking not about merely the sterile atmosphere of Varadero, but many of the bars, cafes and restaurants in the regenerated Habana Vieja where only the Cuban Convertible is the accepted currency.

This disenfranchises ordinary Cubans from much of the social life of the city frequented by tourists. In this regard, I have a great deal of sympathy for all those visitors –  journalist and writer, Neil Clark included – who have expressed disillusionment with Cuba.

During my last day in Varadero, I met Karolina, a Polish woman who had been living and working in Cuba as a health professional. I asked her about the question of housing and freedom of movement for Cuban’s. She explained to me that the Cuban people are legally allowed to change houses through a kind of swap scheme similar to the principle of council house swaps in Britain. Although she was married to a Cuban and had been living in the country for many years, she claimed she had many unanswered questions about the nature of Cuban society.

As I sat at an outdoor bar in Varadero across the street from one of the outwardly plush but sterile hotels listening to the resident salsa band work through their worn routine, I realized that the version of Cuba fetishized in guide books like Lonely Planet exemplified in a place like Varadero, no more resembles contemporary Cuba than red telephone boxes, city stockbrokers wearing bowler hats or the Houses of Parliament represent contemporary London.

Many of the young Cuban’s in Varadero, are more likely to aspire to what they perceive to be an archetypal capitalist lifestyle and the consumption that comes with it, then they are to keep faith with the ideals of Fidel. The popular musical genre known as reggaeton that is mainly enjoyed by the young, is more Miami then Havana and the majority of Varadero youth want to be seen sporting the latest designer clothes and sipping Red Bull rather then lingering on a Mohito wearing a Panama or propping up the bar puffing on a Cohiba.

Karolina explained to me that many young Cuban’s, when exchanging homes, are often prepared to ‘downgrade’ their places in terms of size and/or condition in order to obtain cash so as to be in a position to be able purchase elements of this Western ‘lifestyle’. In Varadero, I saw many young Cuban’s dressed in expensive designer clothes and trainers and driving new cars either paid for through tourism, the downsizing of accommodation or through the receipt of hard currency from the estimated one in four Cuban’s who live in exile.

Meanwhile, the majority of Cuban’s who live their lives outside of this bubble, and who have no access to the Cuban Convertible, must make do with their small state salaries. Thus, Cuban society is bound to become increasingly fractured and divisive in the years to come.

When I suggested to Karolina that this scenario would likely necessitate a political crackdown by the Cuban state which would probably lead to the likelihood of a counter-revolutionary struggle, she looked at me in a resigned knowing way: “Yes, sadly I think this outcome is almost inevitable”, she said….But then added positively, “We people in Cuba have to find a way of looking to the future, and we must believe we can succeed.”

With that positive message embedded in my head, I eagerly anticipated my return to the bustling city of dreamers and street hustlers amid the chaotic frenzy of the dusty, pot-holed strewn streets of downtown Havana where my journey began. Upon my return, I bumped into many familiar faces that I had met in the streets and bars of a city in which one ex-pat, in particular, had made his home.

Having spent a further two weeks here, my time in the country was drawing to an inevitable end. Of the towns and cities in Cuba I visited, Havana was the place I felt most comfortable and relaxed. After two months, my Cuban odyssey – which left me with as many questions as answers – was a mixed one. I certainly recognized many of the problems associated with the existence of a dual currency outlined by Neil Clark which echoed my trips to Eastern Europe prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Nevertheless, my memories of this beautiful country will linger for many years to come.

4 thoughts on “My travels in Cuba (3/3): Varadero & back to Havana

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